Behind the Scenes

The Making of Hood By Air CEO Leilah Weinraub’s 'Shakedown'

Shot over nearly 15 years as the filmmaker ascended to the highest realms of the fashion world with the subversive, shock-and-awe fashion collective Hood By Air, "Shakedown" shines a light on LA’s black lesbian club scene.
The final scene of Leilah Weinraub’s debut film, Shakedown, is a love letter to Los Angeles and the fantasies that fill the one a.m. darkness of its black lesbian strip club scene. Reading from a text written by Weinraub, Egypt, one of the film’s stars, speaks in a sultry voice over nighttime footage of the Los Angeles freeway: “Nothing is what it seems from the outside, and from the outside, things look pretty much the same: in LA, there are strip malls, brown buildings, and concrete streets. For miles, stretching in all directions, palm trees and cars. At night, it’s more of the same, but less light and less cars. Some places are just hard to find.” Over the course of 60 minutes, the film takes us into the lives and sexual provocations of a cast of black femme strippers, revealing a vibrant world far from the mainstream. 

In 2002, Weinraub was sitting at a gay bar in Los Angeles when a party promoter passed her a flyer for Shakedown, a club in Mid-City. She went, and that same evening, asked the club’s owners, Sha’ron “Ronnie-Ron” Harris and Ms. Teresa, if she could work there as a photographer. “The pictures weren’t good,” she says, giggling. “I just wanted to be a part of the show in a way that was complementary. The feeling in the room was always excellent and I hadn’t seen a place that was lesbian and like that before.”

Mesmerized by Shakedown’s atmosphere and how the strippers held sway over the room, Weinraub started shooting video of the dancers, known as “Shakedown Angels,” every Tuesday and Friday night. She would edit the footage and present the tapes as birthday presents. “It was very natural,” she recalls. She quickly became the community’s resident videographer, taping everything from club nights to weddings and baby showers. This was all before she knew that she wanted to turn the club into a film.

Leilah Weinraub by Jabari Khalid.

Born in Los Angeles in 1979 to a Jewish father and Baptist mother, Weinraub grew up in Mid-City in the ’80s and ’90s. She describes her childhood as “pretty normal.” She never came out, even when her parents confronted her, saying, “We think you’re gay,” to which Weinraub shot back, “I think that’s inappropriate!” As she puts it, “I always thought that coming out was tacky, and this straight mentality on being gay. I was like, ‘Fuck that, I hate that.’ Straight people don’t have to come out, so I shouldn’t have to come out.”

After attending a year of high school in a small farming community in Israel, Weinraub applied to seminary school, but was rejected. With her dreams of becoming a rabbi dashed, she moved back to Los Angeles and took a retail job at Maxfield’s, the iconic LA fashion boutique on Melrose, while figuring out her next move. It was there, in 1998, that she sparked up a conversation with the filmmaker Tony Kaye while showing him jewelry in the store. Kaye had just finished his lauded debut, American History X, and he took a liking to Weinraub. She, in turn, became his assistant. “We talked about God a lot while I helped Tony with his next film,” Lake of Fire, a black-and-white documentary about abortion in America that took him 18 years to complete.

While continuing to work for Kaye, Weinraub attended Antioch College and, later, Bard College, where she received her MFA in film. On breaks from school, she kept shooting video and taking pictures for Shakedown. Then, in 2012, after working together on a series of projects, Shayne Oliver, the founder and creative director of the bleeding-edge, boundary-smashing, shock-and-awe fashion label Hood By Air asked Weinraub to become the label’s CEO and partner. Over the next four years, Hood By Air ascended to the highest realms of the fashion world, winning acclaim from Anna Wintour, spawning a million knockoffs, undoing the staunch mores of luxury fashion, and remaking streetwear into something simultaneously more chic and experimental. “People thought when I started working at Hood By Air that I had given up on [Shakedown], but I had the idea in my head.” 

In 2017, Hood By Air announced an indefinite hiatus. “The whole idea of selling luxury fashion is that you are selling people a fantasy,” Weinraub explains of the complex system of borrowing ideas from low and high culture for HBA’s runway shows. “What Shakedown and Hood By Air share is this idea of fantastical dreams, and making them real, and knowing that’s really important.” Will they relaunch the brand? “I don’t know in what way,” she says. “A lot of times with Hood By Air, we were like, is this idea a car, a sculptural project, or should we work with the school system? It felt extremely expansive for most of the time. Then the reality of commerce comes into play, and that’s the thing that closes it in a little bit.” With Hood by Air on hold, Weinraub turned her obsession with fantasy back to film.

On a recent summer afternoon, sitting on the roof of her downtown Manhattan apartment building, Weinraub pulls out her phone and reads from a statement she has prepared about the film. It’s a week after screening Shakedown's 2017 Whitney Biennial cut, and she wants to be intentional about her language. “The story functions as a legend where money is both myth and material, cumulatively questioning how to diagram a utopian moment. This is what I think the story is—it creates more space for female sexual desire to exist.”
Detail of "prom", standalone artwork made from footage of Shakedown, Leilah Weinraub, untitled, 2017, courtesy of the artist.

To make Shakedown, Weinraub watched for nearly a decade and a half, recording 300 hours of
the club nights. From this raw footage, she produced two versions of the film. The first cut is a sprawling 210-minute movie spanning the thirteen years of footage. The second, shorter cut, which can be loosely described as a nonlinear documentary, is the one that screened at the Biennial. Roughly one hour, with a lo-fi aesthetic, the film depicts the lives of four women through footage shot between 2002 and 2004—Mahogany, Ronnie-Ron, and dancers Egypt and Jazmine—four real people so immersed in fantasy that Weinraub refers to them as “characters.” Mahogany, the legendary mother of the scene, provides the historical context for Shakedown’s existence. She tells her story of entertaining for 33 years, throwing a party called “Divas for Dollars,” and a ball, “The Catch Is Burning.” Ronnie-Ron won the ball’s first stud category and was crowned “Master Catch One,” and, with Mahogany’s encouragement, started the black lesbian night that became Shakedown.

The Angel we get to know best in Shakedown is Egypt, who narrates much of the film and captures the most screen time as she navigates desire and the demands of making money. Sitting in front of Weinraub at the Whitney, Egypt explained how she became an adult entertainer and how “being Egypt is a whole different design on being a person. I can be a Barbie, I can be a kitten, I can be S&M, I can beat ya ass. I can do whatever I want to do.” Egypt is affable and empowered and we experience the dancer in a black lesbian fantasy, where she achieves a kind of personal utopia by, as Weinraub puts it, “using fantasies of female desire as a momentary relief from the difficult trudge of the everyday, which makes it hard to pinpoint a real person.” Shakedown invites the viewer to experience Egypt and the other girls as personas wrapped in economies of pleasure. However, Weinraub warns, “Don’t try to say after watching this film, ‘I know exactly who they are, where they are, what they went through.’ If you do that, you don’t get to appreciate the beauty of the show.” Egypt, Ronnie-Ron, Mahogany, and Jazmine show that “fantasy has an ability to be transformative.”

Club flyer featuring Egypt.

In watching Weinraub’s film, one can’t help but call to mind Paris Is Burning, the groundbreaking, tragic, and controversial documentary about New York’s underground ball scene of the mid- to late-’80s. The films diverge in that Weinraub repeatedly positions herself as a desiring participant in Shakedown—far from a fly on the wall. “The project kind of raised me,”
she says when asked if it’s about her black lesbian desire. “Everything I’ve thought about for the last ten years, I used as a lens. So like, systems, energy, underground vs. popular culture, how you feel about what you do.” She takes a deep breath and pauses. “The whole time I was making the film, I thought, ‘What is work? What is the purpose? How does it sculpt your identity? When does work start working you?’”

Like all great parties, Shakedown was shut down by the police. The film captures the club’s last night. Ronnie-Ron invites the girls to get in full costume one last time. Egypt, perhaps out of protest, refuses. Weinraub asks the women how they feel. “Hey, I don’t know, things happen,” says Cathy from the Streets, a regular. Another says, “We all we got, it’s us against the world.” “The film ends, but you can’t end their story,” Weinraub says, looking out into the East River from her rooftop. “It’s hard to move past a fantasy when it’s everything you imagined reality to be.”


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